Michael Stein, TA
- The Social Organization of Law
- M/W 12 - 1:20; The Red Room
- A REVIEW BY
It seems fitting that The Social Organization of Law, the 101 course for the Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought department, should so closely resemble the ominous Hobbesian state of nature: nasty and brutish—though its victims agree that it is anything but short. The scene opens in Converse 108, with a sea of youth hiding behind a sea of MacBooks. The last few students trickle into the room. As they meekly search for available chairs, it becomes apparent that the students have seated themselves around the perimeter of the lecture hall. These students’ methods of avoidance are generic, but the way in which they view the gathering varies widely. For the many Amherst College students who are too liberal, too Jewish, and not athletic enough to stomach the Political Science department, the class is a requirement for their major; for Five-College students, it is an opportunity to glean wisdom from a professor with a Wikipedia page; for confused freshmen, it is a puzzle about what happened to the 8:1 student-faculty ratio. Herein lies the dark beauty of LJST-101. For though it draws students from vastly different walks of collegiate privilege, they all share a common thread—the fear of Professor Austin Sarat saying a question at them. This dread is private, manifesting itself independently for each student. One could even say that this dread is the single uniting force in The Social Organization of Law—but one would be wrong.
Indeed, the pervasive undercurrent of dread may lead a spectator surveying the scene to gloss over the most prized entity in the room. However, after enough time, the character in the lower house-right row of seats becomes impossible to ignore. This subtle star of The Social Organization of Law is the effervescent new teaching assistant, Michael Stein, and though his physical presence can be ignored, his mystical charisma cannot.
Stein begins classes by quietly shuffling into the Red Room, coffee in hand, just before the lecture begins. As he deliberately and earnestly attempts to make his entrance unimposing, it becomes all the more notable. He settles into his front row seat and opens his laptop. At this point, one cannot help but remark on his stillness; in the presence of the noncommittal hand raising of Romey Sklar ’15 or the jarring pajama pants of Brian Ingram ’15, Stein emits an air of contentment. Everything rests, suspended in a static, yet breathing, state. His black thick-rimmed glasses, his netbook, his sleeved cup of coffee are all still, for they do not need adjusting—they are fine as they are. Stein’s contentment is so pervasive that it practically beckons viewers to join him in his fairytale of a TA life.
It is Stein’s presence that elicits the most interesting interactions in Social Org. The comforting atmosphere surrounding Stein does not go unnoticed by Professor Sarat, who seeks to destroy the TA’s bliss. Sarat—whose philosophy on satire in student magazines is, “Don’t write it. I take what I do very seriously.”—is the antagonist of Social Org. His primary objective is to uphold the private, yet shared, vein of terror running through each character in the lecture hall. He skillfully actualizes terror, managing to make feelings of fear, which were once thought to be temporary, seem to last indefinitely. (His success, interestingly enough, hinges on his withholding of attacks; for, rather than berate students with a consistent flow of public questions, he instead strikes in an amazingly unpredictable pattern.) His sporadic nature of questioning is extremely effective with the students, leaving them paralyzed by the unknown, yet ever-looming threat of when their lack of knowledge will next be exposed. The only character who seems unaffected by Sarat’s reign of terror is, of course, the hero of our story: Michael “The Miracle” Stein. When forced to face Sarat’s horrifying traps of questions, Stein delicately, yet brazenly, confronts them head-on. He magically manages to retain his air of contentment, navigating Sarat’s militia with the ease and precision of a tightrope walker, all the while wearing a smile that is as subtle as it is elegant. And though no one—not even Stein himself—can return from a Sarat attack unscathed, one can continue to see, through the post-war rubble, an enduring smile reminiscent of the Mona Lisa.
Not unlike the Mona Lisa, Stein puzzles the audience and art historians alike. We are told that he is a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts, but we are not told much else. And it is difficult to find out much else—he is as elusive as he is quiet. Also, his Facebook profile appears to be nonexistent. Interest in Stein was piqued after the class’s second examination. The exam is short-answer and has been graded by the TA himself; this combination of subjectivity and responsibility leaves our hero in a position vulnerable to resentment from the students. And Stein, indeed, earned that resentment, returning the second set of exams with shockingly harsh scores. Many students have reacted with immediate outrage, claiming that he failed to charitably interpret their short-answer questions, thus refusing them the benefit of the doubt they, as Amherst College students, deserve. Yet, as quickly as students turned to blame Stein, upon seeing his delicate, calm shuffling of the exam papers, their anger melted away.
The grading of exams is unseen, and thus, may be subject to pressures from Professor Sarat, who is considered to be the lone insurgent against Amherst grade inflation. Indeed, in light of his charisma and his exposure to Sarat, the students give Stein the benefit of the doubt—the very same benefit that Stein withheld from them in grading exams.
In sitting through the Social Organization of Law, one cannot help but wonder about a more subtle, yet equally pressing social organization—the social organization of the Stein-Sarat dynamic. How do Stein and Sarat really feel about one another? Sure, they can be seen on a regular basis together in the Red Room, but what happens after 1:20 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays—after the lesson has ended and the pushy freshmen have finished proving their insight to the rest of the class? Once they’re behind closed doors, in the confines of the Clark House first-floor mansion, does Sarat just continue to say questions at a silent Stein? Or does Stein become the scholar when in the safety of Sarat’s solitary dissatisfaction? Perhaps the power roles disappear, and the two transform into chummy friends. Most likely, though, at the end of the day, Sarat retreats into his trophy case, forcing Stein to complete his lecture preparation by dropping tween pop culture references into Reader’s Digest jokes.